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What is it about Monopoly that draws everyone, young and old, to it? How did Lego go from being dismissed as a mere ‘plastic-toy company’ to selling 400 billion blocks? These inventions have stood the test of time and are a lesson in longevity for every entrepreneur. words Nichola Clark illustrations tim signore

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DECEMBER 2012

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ifting through the polaroidsnapshot memories of our childhood we rediscover the toys and games we loved. The naked Barbie dragged around affectionately by her matted hair; the Spider-man who occasionally lost limbs during stunts. And you only have to dust off the family Monopoly board for a plume of recollections to be thrown into the air like moths. Glimpses of laughter at Christmas, eye-winking alliances with grandparents no longer here and dad, who taught us the pokerface. There are toys that come and go, lasting as long as a shoe size. Then there are the ones that have captured the imaginations of generations — a Royal Family of toys, which has become ingrained in our culture. Monopoly, the king of board games, with chancellors Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary at its side, has long held the imagination of adults and children alike. Then, of course, there’s Lego, the construction game that has successfully and seamlessly crossed generations, age and gender. Why do some toys and games endure when others fall? Is it luck, fun, brand or

nostalgia? With toy sales in Australia alone generating $1.11 billion last year, it is a formula entrepreneurs would love to know and one they strive to re-create.

Do not pass go Tim Walsh, inventor of rapid-recall board game Blurt! and author of Timeless Toys, says the success of Monopoly is partly due to an earlier version, The Landlord’s Game, dreamt up by one Elizabeth Magie. Monopoly enthusiasts detail stories of skulduggery about patents and rights, but the upshot is that Philadelphian Charles Darrow borrowed Magie’s idea, launching Monopoly in 1934. A year later, Parker Brothers acquired it. Walsh believes the popularity of the Monopoly we know and love — and love to hate — is down to timing. “It came out during the Great Depression,” he says. Darrow, in fact, was one of the many unemployed at the time. “It gave people the fantasy of being able to handle money,

buy houses and be in control of their lives. If it had come out today, it wouldn’t have been so successful; it takes too long. People [then] were out of work and had the time to play.” In common with Monopoly, Lego benefited from excellent timing. In 1932, Dane Ole Kirk Kristiansen established the Lego group (derived from the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’, which means to ‘play well’) and made wooden toys in his carpenter’s workshop in Billund. Fastforward 14 years, and Lego became the first toy company in Denmark to buy a plastic-injection-moulding machine, something that would revolutionise wooden and metal construction sets. Three years later, Lego acquired the rights to an earlier British design and then released the Automatic Binding Bricks with four and eight studs, which became the foundation of its empire. “Tonnes of engineers and architects were influenced by Lego blocks,” Walsh says. “Children play as a way to understand the world and practise for the future. In board games there is a social aspect that kids learn a lot from: negotiation, cutting deals and communicating.”

Professor of developmental psychology at Melbourne Institute of Technology, Edith K Ackermann, agrees: “Free building, or ‘messing around with materials’, is inherent to play. Constructive play, like playing a musical instrument, lets children bring their imagination to life through a process of open exploration, or intelligent form-giving.” By 1951, plastic toys accounted for half of Lego’s output. Prior to this, after a visit to the company’s factory, Danish trade magazine Legetøjs-Tidende (Toy-Times) stated that “plastic would never be able to replace good and honest wooden toys”. If any proof to the inaccuracy of that statement were needed, Lego could point out that, over the course of five decades, it has produced 400 billion plastic blocks.

In pursuit of trivia Richard Gill, former co-owner and developer of Pictionary and the man responsible for taking Trivial Pursuit to

Oh baby, look at you now

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Love her or hate her, she’s part of our universe. With her improbable figure and countless careers, Barbie continues to inspire young girls.

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Lilli leads the way After watching her daughter Barbara playing adult make-believe with paper dolls, Barbie creator Ruth Handler realised there was a market for a fashion doll. She was further inspired by Bild Lilli, a German doll for adults who came into being in 1955. 142

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Teenage Barbie is born The first teenage fashion doll, Barbara Millicent Roberts — or Barbie — makes her debut in her bathing suit at the New York Toy Fair to a sceptical audience. Barbie goes on to mirror popular culture and, over the decades, inspire girls with her 130 plus careers. “For the first time, it let little girls imagine what it was like to be grown up without being centred around mothering,” says Nancy Zwiers, Mattel’s former head of global marketing for Barbie.

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A giant step for dollkind Astronaut Barbie lands on the moon four years before Neil Armstrong, reflecting the excitement of the space program at the time. As Handler said: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represents the fact that a woman has choices.”

Research provided by Amanda Allegos, marketing director, Mattel Australia and New Zealand, and Nancy Zwiers, inventor of Pony Royale and former head of global marketing for Barbie.

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Plastic fantastic With her yellow towel and hunky Ken at her side, the blonde beach babe Malibu Barbie found her spot on the sand to the background music of the Beach Boys hit California Girls. Zwiers says Barbie represents “hyper-femininity, like a superhero would represent exaggerated masculinity to a boy”.

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Barbie rocks it Barbie and the Rockers, with uber-perm, shoulder pads and fluoro pink, made Madonna look like a shrinking violet. Also in the 1980s pinkly power-dressed ‘Day to Night Barbie’ graced the boardroom. “Barbie has shattered the ‘plastic ceiling’ over and over by introducing girls to careers not traditionally held by women,” says Amanda Allegos, marketing director for Mattel in Australia.

the world, believes it is no coincidence that these games hit the big time after the second oil crisis, which began in 1979. As with Monopoly and Lego, Gill says: “It was the right time, right place. Trivial Pursuit was expensive to buy, and aspirational, but we pitched it so that people could invite friends around and have an inexpensive evening at home rather than go to a restaurant.”

the world had seen. By the end of 1984, 20 million games took pride of place on coffee tables across Canada and the US. The following year, Gill spent nine months travelling the world developing the game internationally. Inspired by Trivial Pursuit, and surfing the same wave of success, Pictionary came to the party in 1985. Three years later, it had also sold millions of games.

After a bumpy start, Trivial Pursuit exploded onto the US market in 1983 and soon became the fastest-selling game the world had ever seen. ”“ Dreamt up in 1979 by Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, Trivial Pursuit was unique because it was one of the first modern board games designed for adults. “It was fun, challenging and difficult,” Walsh says. “It was also a bit ‘cachet’ and became a status symbol for smart, rich people.” After a bumpy start, Trivial Pursuit exploded onto the US market in 1983. It soon became the fastest-selling game

Inventor Rob Angel was a student and bartender at the time. “He used to play an early form of the game using a dictionary with his co-workers,” Gill recalls. Angel, he says, wasn’t into the elitist element of Trivial Pursuit; he wanted Pictionary to be more accessible and fun. “Everyone could play, even if you weren’t great at drawing,” Gill adds. This combination made it an immediate hit with families and the college crowd. ▶

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Political player Barbie entered politics as a Presidential Candidate, reflecting the boost in the number of women elected into the US House of Representatives. In the same decade, Barbie explored fantasy for the first time, as a Mermaid.

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New millennium girl Barbie saw in the millennium as Jewel Girl. To mark the turn of the century, she underwent a makeover. She binned the bottle of bleach and garish makeup for a more sophisticated, fresh, natural image. Her body became more athletic and she got her first belly button.

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Barbie for president No slouch in the digital age, Barbie geeks it up and becomes a spectacle-wearing Computer Engineer. In 2012, the webisode series Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse reaches children’s computer screens and Barbie once again hits the campaign circuit with the I Can Be… President doll, which would turn the White House pink.

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Game-changing inspiration

Richard Gill, former co-owner of Pictionary, tells us what you can learn from game-makers.

Variation on a theme: Toymakers are great at creating product lines or brands and extending them into every avenue of their business: toys, figures, games, activity sets and more.

The success of these games shows that there’s always a longing for face-to-face connection. ”“

A digital age The unprecedented success of these new board games took the toy industry by surprise, especially considering that early digital offerings such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong had flooded the market. “Many people believed it would be the death of board games,” Walsh says. “But their success showed that there’s always a longing for face-to-face connection.” Gill and Walsh believe that the emotional and physical experience, together with nostalgic memories created between family and friends, contribute to the endurance of such board games. “People remember the good times,” Gill says, “and want to return to those games and memories at Christmas or during school holidays with their children. Monopoly, for instance, strikes such a chord with people because it goes back generations and every family feels they should have one.” More than 275 million Monopoly games have been sold worldwide so its success is 144

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more than luck. Despite its popularity in its original form, it has embraced modern culture in many different versions. These have included cross-licences with companies such as Disney, digital versions and award-winning apps. However, one of its biggest sellers is still the board version. Lego, too, is a master of ‘old and new’. “It has endured across the ages not only because it was a great concept but because of the ways it has been re-imagined over time, following popular themes such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, and with multiple kits, including some that deliberately target girls,” says Christine Preston, lecturer in primary curriculum studies at the University of Sydney. “There are also Lego robotics, where students construct robots and use a computer to program them to dance to music or play soccer.” But key to Lego’s endurance is that it never steers away from its solid foundations — the simple brick, a form of play that encourages children to think laterally, logically, imaginatively and creatively — all key skills that see us through adulthood. At least, that’s my excuse for constructing a full Star Wars set on the living room floor this Christmas — and I’m sticking to it.

Hot on trend: Quick to follow and exploit trends, toymakers are experts at mining that source of sales. Are you missing any trends?

Creative marketing: Toymakers explore a multitude of marketing avenues, among them publishing, producing their own TV shows or partnering on movies. Could you be more creative in your marketing?

Supply-chain monitoring: The toy industry is at the forefront of working with advocacy groups to check and improve the conditions of factory workers and the integrity of supply.

Globetrotters: Toymakers are at home with globalisation. There are few places untouched by the sales of branded toys. China is next on the map. Which country is on your cards? DECEMBER 2012


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